WEDNESDAY: Survival of the Swiftest


Tony Kicinski is a member of the Markham Village Writers in Markham, ON. This story was first published in the 2004 anthology The Collected Works of the Markham Village Writers. Copyright is held by the author.

THEY BOTH BEGAN running at the same time. It looked like a crisp, new, 50-dollar bill, carried by the gentle fingers of the summer breeze, fluttering like a Monarch butterfly above the railroad tracks.

The vagrant had seen it first, shortly after it drifted into the GO train stop. She was very observant. She had to be, to survive on the streets. Patience was another of her virtues. She decided not to move from the comfort of her bench until the bill came closer. At the same time, she watched for a reaction from the stockbroker sitting on another bench. He seemed to be quite relaxed, for somebody holding a copy of the Wall Street Journal. But she guessed that something must be on his mind, for he twitched every few minutes.

She breathed in the fragrance of his Calvin Klein aftershave while peering at his navy pinstripe suit and black loafers with the little tassels. The stockbroker had walked past her to sit on the upwind side. The thought crossed her mind that maybe it was time to go to the shelter to indulge in a bath. She loved to relax in a hot, soapy tub but she was uncomfortable being among the other vagrants and dealing with the oh-so-helpful social workers there. Her home was the great outdoors, where she lived in harmony with Mother Nature, only approaching people when she deemed it necessary.

The vagrant fantasized about what she would do with the money that was drifting into her life. Maybe spend a few dollars on luxuries and add the rest to her winter survival funds. An ice-cream cone? She hadn’t licked ice-cream in many months. Mmm, yes, she could almost taste the delicious Heavenly Hash! But, an ice-cream cone is quite expensive; at some stores, a two-litre brick costs only a little more than a cone. She’ll have to check the current prices.

The stockbroker didn’t see the bill until it was fluttering by his bench. He was in a trance, enjoying the scent of the trees and flowers, the warm breeze ruffling his thinning hair, and the disharmonious choir of robins, starlings, cardinals and other birds he didn’t recognize. This was the best part of his day, between the chaos of breakfast at home and the pandemonium of stocks, bonds, options, currencies and commodities. He tried to push thoughts of his personal financial worries away, but they persisted in surfacing every few minutes. He glanced at the orange fluttering object. What an amazing butterfly! Looking closer, he realized what it was and his tranquility vanished. He jumped up to snatch it before it could escape.

The sudden motion surprised the vagrant but her reflexes were quick, and she leapt off her bench. They both raced toward the bill, each managing to grasp an end.

“Hey, let go mister!” she yelled, “I saw it first.”

“Nothing doing! If you saw it first, you would have gone for it sooner.”

“Give it to me,” she insisted, trying to yank the bill from his hand.

“Oh, no, you don’t,” he retorted. He was glad he’d been working out. She was strong; she had almost torn the bill from his grasp.

“Man, you don’t need this. You’re a rich businessman.”

“Rich? Rich? Have you read the newspapers lately instead of sleeping on them? The stock market is in shambles. I need this money to buy groceries next week.”

“Oh, yeah, right. You’re dressed in a fancy designer suit and I’m sure you’ve got a house full of food. I need this to survive.”

“You have no idea. This is a tough time.”

“Give it to me!” screamed the vagrant.

“No! You let go!”

They pulled the bill back and forth, but neither seemed able to win the tugging contest. The vagrant decided to try a diversion, and she kicked the stockbroker’s left shin.

“Ouch! Don’t get violent with me!” The stockbroker’s face contorted in anger and he raised a fist.

“I’m serious. I need this money to survive.”

“Well, you can’t have it because I need it.”

The vagrant realized that the tugging contest couldn’t continue; the stockbroker was losing control. She needed to apply her wits and experience. She looked around frantically, and an idea flashed into her mind. She relaxed her expression and posture, though not her grasp on the bill, and said, “Wait, mister. Please calm down.” When he responded to her soothing influence, she continued, “This situation isn’t what it seems. You’ve been a real good sport. This is a reality show called ‘Bait the Bystander.’ We set up this predicament to see how you would react, and you were great. Look at the far end of the platform. Do you see the camera under the eave of the rain shelter?”

The stockbroker looked in the direction she was pointing, and sure enough, there it was. He released the bill and turned to face the camera with his most photogenic smile. After a few moments, he wondered why no assistants were hurrying over to congratulate him on his performance. Looking around, he was shocked to discover that the vagrant had vanished from the platform.

Oh! There she was, scurrying between a car and a big van in the parking lot–too far to chase. He filled his lungs to capacity, closed his eyes for a long moment, exhaled a huge sigh, and slumped down onto the nearest bench.

As she hurried past a large, windowless van, the vagrant recoiled as a man poked a video camera toward her through the open, side door. With a mischievous grin, he called out, “Smile, you’re on ‘Realities of Life.’ 50”

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